“Spectacular”, “magnificent”, “huge” — these are some of the words that are usually used to describe a Shankar film. Grandeur is what an average audience expects from Shankar, no matter, if he has a good story, gripping screenplay, beautiful songs, memorable performances to offer. He may not satisfy a massive population of the audience across the country if he doesn’t present his film on a large scale. He is James Cameron of Indian cinema, you see. We don’t settle for anything less from him than impressively-mounted sets that we don’t get to see in other Indian films.
Shankar as a filmmaker is constantly under pressure to keep making bigger films. Even in a political drama like Mudhalvan (1999), he includes a song like ‘Mudhalvanae’, where he created a CGI-universe filled with giant serpents with human faces.
What to expect when Shankar joins forces with the superman of Indian cinema, Rajinikanth? Nothing short of grandeur. It was what we got when the actor-director duo collaborated for the first time in 2007 for Sivaji. The movie was a regular potboiler about vigilante justice but mounted on a large scale.
Rajinikanth had retreated into his ‘cave’ after the box office disaster of Baba (2003), in which he looked physically weak and small. He bounced back with Chandramukhi (2005) but still, the filmmakers were not very successful in finding him an impressive wig.
In 2007, Shankar achieved a breakthrough of sorts with Rajinikanth’s makeover. It gave the audience a stronger and younger looking Rajinikanth. Something that could make Abbas swoon over the Superstar (while exclaiming “What a man?”) again just the way he did in Padayappa (1999). Each song’s eye-popping backdrop (wonderfully created by Thotta Tharani), AR Rahman’s music and Shankar’s expertise in spinning out vigilante justice movies, all worked so well in entertaining the audience. Rajinikanth as Motta Boss towards the climax ensured that the audience left the theater with a sense that they got their money’s worth.
Three years later Enthiran: The Robot was released. In 2010, it was the most expensive Indian film to be ever made. Again, the focus was on its “grandeur”, the money that was spent on hiring Hollywood special effects experts, the star cast, Aishwarya Rai romancing Rajinikanth for the first time and so on. More attention was on its logistics and less on its content.
Rewatching Enthiran on a streaming site was a different experience than watching it on the big screen. I was more tolerant towards the mistakes of the filmmakers, who were in a rush to show a robot develop cognitive abilities aka fall in love with its master’s girlfriend so that they can get to the more interesting parts of the movie: a humanoid robot wreaking havoc in the city.
Shankar takes his time to set up the stage for the main conflict to play out. But, once he gets going, he keeps up a very engaging pace. He has embedded the entire movie with small but very memorable sequences. Like the scene set in a ghetto backdrop, in which Chitti attracts everything that’s metal. Or the entire action that takes place on running trains.
In the second half of the film, we get to see Rajinikanth’s Chitti going through a massive transformation. A ‘man’, who is love with a girl, gets abandoned by his own creator and is left to ‘die’. He gets resurrected from the ‘dead’ but he’s pure evil now. Blinded by lust, he kills everything that comes between him and his lady love. And then eventually return to his senses with an apologetic ‘heart’. Except for Chitti, no other character in the movie undergoes such a huge transformation through the course of the film. Even Dr Vaseegaran is terribly underwritten as Shankar struggles to accommodate two Rajinikanths in the screenplay.
Aishwarya Rai as Sana only gets to thrive in the expensive dreamy duet songs. Shankar has penned a cringe-worthy scene for Aishwarya, in which she asks Kalabhavan Mani to be her one-day boyfriend (like the one-day chief minister in Mudhalvan). And why? So that she could cheer up her boyfriend Vaseegaran, who is in mourning. Shankar needs to work on his ideas about writing scenes for female characters.
The characters of Santhanam and Karunas feel unnatural in the whole set up. Danny Denzongpa’s Bohra, “the main antagonist”, is yanked out of the script unceremoniously for the convenience of the story.
But we didn’t buy tickets to see a strong female character, a nuanced villain, and be rib-tickled by comedy. Shankar knows that we paid to see Chitti going rouge and when it comes to that point, Shankar has done a solid job. In the pre-climax sequence, Shankar has let his imagination run riot with hundreds of robots working in unison, taking shapes of anaconda, giant man and much more. Rajinikanth letting down his hair and channeling his inner MN Nambiar does what Motta Boss did to Sivaji. It gives the audience a sense of satisfaction that they got their money’s worth.
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